Damien Chazelle could have made things a bit easier on himself with his follow-up to “Whiplash,” the Oscar-winning smash that catapulted the 31-year-old onto Hollywood’s directing A-list.
But what fun would that be?
“Anything with the word original on it, let alone a musical, gets alarm bells going,” Chazelle notes. So, naturally, his new movie is “La La Land,” an ambitious and sprawling original musical that’s a love letter to Los Angeles and all that the City of Angels represents in the popular imagination, rendered in a style that combines classical studio era pastiche with a contemporary sensibility.
“Partly, it was just the challenge itself that was attractive,” Chazelle says. “I first fell in love with old Hollywood musicals around the same time as I was starting to make documentary films in college.”
“I think right from the get-go it felt like those two poles seem to be as far removed as you can get, the musical and the documentary,” he continues. “Specifically, cinema vérité and the old Hollywood MGM musical. So immediately, it was like, ‘OK, how can you trace a line between those two.’”
The film stars Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling as, respectively, an aspiring actress working in a coffee shop on a studio lot and a jazz virtuoso toiling away at Christmas songs in a restaurant. They meet and fall in love, in the sort of grand, stylized way fans of the movies of Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers might recognize.
Actors these days aren’t as accustomed to the heightened nature of this sort of production, as big screen musical fantasies like “La La Land” are a severely endangered species if not totally extinct, and singing and dancing skills are a less critical part of a movie actor’s repertoire now now than ever before.
Stone has a bit of a background in this area, having played Sally Bowles in the recent Broadway revival of “Cabaret.” Gosling has done some singing here and there throughout his career, most notably as a child on “The Mickey Mouse Club.”
But a star of “Easy A” and former Mary Jane Watson in the “Spider-Man” universe, and the smoldering star of “Drive” and “The Place Beyond the Pines,” certainly aren’t intrinsically associated with the world of musicals.
“I wanted to try and humanize it even more and ground it and make it relatable even more, to the extent that it’s like, ‘OK, these are people who I normally associate with talking and walking, just like you or me, and now suddenly these people are singing and dancing and doing things that I normally associated with a different, rarefied realm of performer,” Chazelle says.
They are such great actors, though, such natural talents, that casting them hardly stood as a gamble. The filmmaker hails their adeptness at juggling the tones required by a movie that’s both real and fantastical, and likens their chemistry to Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers or Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn. They learned their dance steps quite nicely, too.
The end result is that Stone stands as an Oscar front-runner for her troubles, and the movie shapes up as a Best Picture favorite. Chazelle’s ambitious endeavor has, without question, paid immense dividends and the movie hasn’t even opened.
The appeal has everything to do with the movie’s accessibility, the feeling that permeates every scene and sets it apart from the fantastical milieu of your everyday musical, an effort which Chazelle articulates this way: “A conscious choice to break down that barrier and bring that closer to home, so that it felt like you or I could break into song.”